Thursday, February 29, 2024

Even More Offensive

In my previous post, “Offensive Christianity”, I argued that many of us misunderstand the choice we have in facing Christ: we think it’s between faith and doubt — but in scripture, it is between faith and being offended.

Everybody struggles with doubt. And perhaps we tend to think that when we do, it signals something very, very bad. Maybe it means our faith has failed. Maybe it means we were never sincere in the first place. Maybe it means we’re lost.

The Occasion of Faith

Maybe. But maybe not. Actually, doubt is often the occasion of faith. It’s when we doubt that we need to decide anew what we really believe. As momentary doubt gives way to faith, we grow and are strengthened. It is by conquering doubt that faith triumphs. So naturally, moments of doubt are going to come in the life of faith, just as shadows get created by the presence of light. At least, that’s the way it is on earth. In eternity, neither doubts nor shadows persist any longer.

Seen this way, doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. Not at all. The true opposite of faith is taking offense and refusing to believe. Really, these are the two ever-present alternatives within the life of faith — to believe, or to be scandalized and reject.

Back in the 1800s, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard pointed this out. “Offense,” he wrote, “[is] a highly characteristic note of Christianity and stands in close relation to faith.” What he meant was that if you are a Christian, and have never passed through the phase where you could have been offended, you are not a Christian at all. Likewise, if you are a Christian and your testimony is inoffensive to your society, you are gravely deceived about its worth — either you have misspoken the truth of Christianity, or you have not spoken at all.

Now, Kierkegaard was writing in an era rather different from ours, when to call oneself a Christian was comfortable, socially-respectable and shallow. It was little more than a synonym for “civilized” or “decent”, really — and it came with no fear, no danger, little sacrifice, no pain and considerable reward from one’s peers. But Kierkegaard sought to unsettle this ethos of self-satisfied, pseudo-Christian posturing, and to restore the essential offense to the decision to follow Christ. He set out to bring back to consciousness the totality of the commitment required, and all its fearful, trembling implications.

To become a Christian is to have endured a moment of choice when one could have been offended instead, and to have made a deliberate choice of faith instead. Without offense there is no choice, and no Christianity. Wrote Kierkegaard, “From the possibility of the offense, a man turns either to offense or faith.”

The Offense of the God-Man

What was so offensive about Christ? It had to do, Kierkegaard continued, with “the God-Man”, meaning the Incarnation, of course … God being manifest in flesh. And the offense had two possible directions, which Kierkegaard labeled the offense of loftiness and the offense of lowliness.

In the first, someone who is clearly a man also claims to be God; but if one gets over that, then a second offense leaps in, namely that one whom we have decided to believe to be God — and on whom we have fixed high hopes and from whom we expect grand gestures, miracles, political achievements, free food, deliverance from worldly sorrows, the establishment of earthly justice — behaves instead like a man, being unassuming and unprepossessing, declines to perform the expected interventions, and takes to wandering around looking for a bite to eat or a place to lay his head. Then, like the most ordinary sort of man, he is taken and nailed to a wretched piece of wood ... and still he calls us to follow him.

We have lost sight of just how offensive the God-Man really is. But this was his manner from beginning to end. To see this, he said, we modern Christians must take a position of “contemporaneousness” with Christ. That is, modern people must cease to think of the events of the Lord’s life as they have been depicted to us so often in misguided Sunday School lessons and the chintzy picture-books of modern Christian bookstores. Instead, we must see from the perspective of those living at the same time as Christ, and imaginatively reconstruct how totally shocking he and his actions really were. Only if we grasp the history this way will we see the choice that is before every Christian, even today.

Proof Positive

Let us bounce off just a few cases, very quickly.

Consider his birth. What is this “Messiah in a manger” business? How should he be born to be greeted by wretched shepherds, in precincts suited to them, instead of among the lofty, clothed in splendor and housed in palaces? How offensive to every expectation in Israel! His offense was lowliness.

What about his upbringing, among the townspeople of Nazareth? They were genuinely annoyed that anyone from that town and country should propose to do miracles or speak from God. Was he not merely “one of them”, the son of a local carpenter and his wife? Who gave him the right to go putting on airs? They were offended. His offense was loftiness.

How about his claim to forgive sins? What sort of a man is allowed to speak this way? Is this not outright blasphemy? The Pharisees certainly said so … and more, accused him even of collusion with demons. This was offensive indeed. It was again the offense of loftiness.

But lest we think offense of that kind can only come to the sceptical, consider faithful John, locked up in jail, and unable to reconcile that situation with his heartfelt expectation that Christ would be the one whose sandal he was unworthy to untie? How offensive to think that such a one should look so lowly.

“Blessed is he who is not offended in me,” Christ responded.

Even More Offense

What about all those offended after the feeding of the five thousand? At first, the crowd wanted to come and make him king by force. Should not one so clearly empowered by God to feed his people use that power? And he evaded their company, so they sought him out to press him. Instead, he told them that his flesh and blood were real food and drink, and they should have that. And those who had hailed him as Messiah turned around and exclaimed, “This is a hard saying! Who can listen to it!” And all those nominal disciples were gone in one stroke of offense.

Even the twelve core disciples struggled with the offense of the God-Man. They would ask him questions like “Is it at this time you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” And even after his death, some former disciples lamented, “We had hoped …” But they were of little faith, and could hope no more, because their expectations were offended in him.

What about his accusers? They charged him with wanting to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days! What? A mere man? Blasphemy! What do you think? “He’s deserving of death,” they said. How offensive. The Romans agreed, and placed a mocking title above him, “King of the Jews”. As he hung on the cross, the cynical observers said, “He saved others; himself, he could not save” and “Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.” What an offense that he claimed these things! Even the thieves who were dying beside him could not (at first) forbear to mock the very idea of a human God hanging on a cross.

In all these cases, the offense again and again was this: a God was man, and a man was God. These things were not to be believed together … Too lofty! Too lowly! How offensive!

Where is the Offense Today?

Now, today, we face the same choice. We can be offended by the loftiness and lowliness of Christ.

To become a Christian, one has to face this challenge: that One who was very clearly a real man, a “mere” human being — of ancient historical note, to be sure, but not a very impressive modern man — claimed to be God. And one has to believe from the heart that that claim is true. If you cannot believe that, you are not a Christian. If you think he was only a man, even if you admire his ethics or revere his character, and even if you emulate his example, you are a mere dilettante with no more connection to him than any other rank unbeliever.

But having come to Christ, are you now offended at his humanity? Does the fact that he now suffers such infamy at the hands of cynics and mockers cause you to put your hand over your mouth? And when you consider that, being God, he might easily do a miracle to show his bona fides, or might even grant you wealth, health and prosperity, or relieve you from suffering or your own unfortunate circumstances, and yet he does not — does that cause you offense?

But if you side with him, how is it that your Christianity is not more offensive, in itself? How has it come about that the world is not shocked and angered by your claim, which is that God is a man, and a man is God? How has that claim, so shocking to the contemporaries of Christ, disappeared into the air? Where did it go? Could it be that you have not really been making that claim, or have been making it only in your heart and not declaring it to the world? That would explain why the offense of the gospel has been banished.

And what is our complicity in that, today?

Ending the Offense

But if Christ is Messiah, then he rules. And the times and proportions of things are in his hands, not ours. Do we have the courage to believe that? Do we have the faith to believe that what is appropriate to the days of his humiliation and what is appropriate to his status as God Incarnate are only rightly proportioned by him?

Does our faith falter when we see the upheaval of the world around us, so that we forget that he is coming again? Or are we scandalized that he does not do more to interrupt the reckless courses of men, and establish justice for our society?

Or does our imagination fail at the thought of a God who understands our weakness, who has compassion for our trials and testings, and who knows and feels the depths of our humanity? Do we grow weary, fail to hold our course, raise a testimony, walk sacrificially, and wait for the Son of God from heaven, because he now seems too distant from where we presently are?

“Blessed is he who is not offended in me.” But there will be offense, and much offense too, if all is being done according to the deliberate purposes of God. Christianity is an inherently offensive belief.

What ends the offense? Either compromise or conviction. There is nothing to offend the world when the Christian falls silent, and neither speaks nor embodies the testimony of Christ. Likewise, in the life of the individual, there can no longer be offense when one has thoroughly disbelieved, or when one has believed so fully that one is no longer capable of being offended anymore.

It is in the in-between times that the offense persists: when the God-Man is presented or modeled by his followers, and that in front of the disbelieving world.

Now is the time for the offense of Christ to be most pronounced. More on that, if the Lord grants time and means.


  1. Here is an example of how offensive Christiany has become to to the deep state activists, those who do not choose Christ but see him as a threat to their agenda.

  2. That's one seriously red-pilled Catholic, Q. I agree with much of what he says there.